promotional material from Deutschland 83

Deutschland 83

Introduction

Set during the rising tensions of the Cold War and the threat of nuclear annihilation, “Deutschland 83” is an entertaining spy story with lots of action and suspense. Martin Rauch, a young and wide-eyed border guard, is forced to go undercover for the German Secret Service to find out if America’s missile deployments and military exercises are actually the first moves towards another global conflict. Can Martin save the day?

Winning an International Emmy Award and several prestigious domestic television accolades, “Deutschland 83” was the first German-language series broadcast on a US network. It is also one of the most popular foreign-language dramas aired on British television.

If you are studying the programme for the AQA’s A-Level Media Studies course, you should look at our guide to “Capital” because you will probably have to compare and contrast the two texts. We need to consider narrative, representation, audience and media industry, but have a look at the official trailer and then let’s start with genre.

Channel Four Trailer

Genre

Spy thrillers are popular because they are full of exciting action and intense danger. There are certain tropes the audience will expect to see in the story: political intrigue, secret agents having clandestine meetings with their handlers, surveillance equipment and gadgets, double-crosses, espionage, and undercover missions. “Deutschland 83” delivers on these promises.

Political Context

You can probably guess from the title, but “Deutschland 83” is set in Germany in 1983 during the Cold War between the two superpowers – the United States and the Soviet Union. This was a period of political tensions when distrust and fear could easily have escalated into a catastrophic nuclear war. It was an ideological conflict between the more liberal democracies in the West compared to the communist authoritarian states in the East.

Germany was in the middle. At the end of the Second World War, the country was split into two independent nations: the Federal Republic of Germany, which was allied to the Western democracies, and the German Democratic Republic, which was supported by the USSR. Started in 1961, the Berlin Wall soon divided the city.

Lenora watches the television
Screenshot from “Deutschland 83”

In the opening scene, we are introduced to Lenora Rauch, a member of East German Foreign Intelligence Service (HVA). She believes the American president, Ronald Reagan is a “danger to mankind” because of his “open threat” of missile strikes on East Germany and Soviet Russia. She convinces her boss to send an undercover agent into West Germany to steal the confidential documents and reveal the truth about America’s intentions.

By the way, each episode is named after the NATO exercises Martin’s covert operation is trying to uncover. This map is from the non-profit National Security Archive initiative which collects declassified documents.

The Protagonist

Martin Rauch is a border agent with a “spotless record”. The audience first sees the protagonist interrogating two young smugglers who have tried to bring books across the border. He seems to be strict and severe – the “right class perspective” for a secret agent. He also has the “right profile” for this particular mission: twenty-four years of age, athletic, smart, interested in football, and has “training” in English and Russian.

Martin interrogating the smugglers
Introduction to Martin in “Deutschland 83”

Martin proves to be a very effective spy. For example, after he charms Linda and improvises a listening device to plant in Henrik Mayer’s office, he uses his initiative and asks her to type out the lyrics to their favourite song. This enables the officers in East Germany to decipher her work on the typewriter. It works “loud and clear”.

During the interview in his living room, Martin says he is willing to sacrifice himself for the good of his country. His tone lacks confidence. Later in the episode, when he expresses his desire to return to East Germany, Lenora is able to exploit his mother’s desperate need for a kidney transplant and “expensive pharmaceuticals” to blackmail our hero into continuing with the mission. There is also the promise to provide his girlfriend, Annette, a car and apartment.

The audience is positioned to admire the protagonist because of his increasingly ambivalent feelings towards the conflict and his determination to prevent the war. He is our hero.

Spycraft

Before he infiltrates the West German Army, Martin is given three weeks of advanced training in the “key technical aspects of his mission”. For instance, Tobias teaches him “brush-pass” techniques so he can quietly deliver vital information to his handlers, even in a crowded room. Martin also learns to pick security locks, remain inconspicuous, read material upside-down, and some of the subtler cultural aspects of living in the West, such as how the East German kaufhalle is called supermarkt.

Martin assumes a new identity, Moritz Stamm, and becomes a first lieutenant in the West German Army. He learns his cover story and establishes a good relationship with his superior, General Edel. His ability to manage and diffuse intense and dangerous situations demonstrates his mental resilience. In the first episode, for example, he excuses himself from lunch and breaks into the General’s office to photograph the Able Archer documents.

There is also a dead drop – the secret location where Martin can pass information to Lenora.

Martin at the dead drop
Screenshot from the end of Episode One

Gadgets

Technology has always been an important aspect of the spy thriller. Martin is also trained to use micro cameras to photograph sensitive documents and he uses a “battery-powered bug” to listen into the NATO General’s conversations in the hotel.

However, “Deutschland 83” has some fun with this trope. Martin steals the floppy disk from the hotel room, but the German Intelligence Agency struggle to find a computer to actually read the confidential information.

Screenshot from Episode Three

Narrative Theory

Although Tobias tells Martin “don’t play the hero”, the protagonist’s sphere of action fulfils the criteria for that character type in Vladimir Propp’s plot analysis. That would make the Americans the villains of the story because they deploy the Pershing II missiles to Europe and cause the lack. Lenora Rauch and her superior, Walter Schweppenstette, are the dispatchers who send the hero on his quest to retrieve the magical object that will help them defeat the villain.

Karl Krammer and Tobias Tischbier are helpers because they provide support for the mission. Could Frau Netz be considered a donor because Martin has to steal her keys in the first episode? Is Yvonne Edel the princess because our hero has to rescue her from the commune in the second episode?

Although Propp was studying Russian fairy tales, it is clear those classic character types are still relevant to modern storytelling.

In terms of Tzvetan Todorov’s narrative theory, “Deutschland 83” begins with Martin’s state of equilibrium – maintaining control at the border between East and West Germany. He also has a romantic relationship with Annett Schneider.

His aunt’s plan is the disruption.

Martin’s undercover mission is the disequilibrium and the only way he can repair the imbalance is to steal the confidential material and prevent a nuclear war. Easy.

Representation of the East and West

Ronald Reagan tried to depict the Soviet regime as the “evil empire” and position Western democracies as the great defenders of freedom. This is a simple binary opposition. The contrast between East and West Germany is epitomised by consumer goods, such as good quality coffee. As the assassin says, “capitalists like to buy things then fear someone else is going to steal them.”

Martin is stunned when he says the well-stocked shelves in the supermarkt.

Martin in a supermarket
Screenshot from “Deutschland 83”

Another interesting contrast is the representation of lunch. In the first episode, Ingrid eats cucumber on toast. In the second episode, Martin is able to treat himself to “cow steak”. Of course, his mother’s sparse meal could refer to her kidney problems, but the difference between the meals, including the technical codes of both shots, draws attention to the West’s affluence, especially our hero’s ignorance about ordering food in the restaurant.

Ingrid eating cucumber on toast
Ingrid’s Lunch
Martin eating steak
Martin’s Lunch

Representation Task

Explore the representation of national identities in “Deutschland 83”. You should consider the similarities and differences between the depiction of East and West Germans. The representation of General Jackson is also worth analysing.

The Representation of Women

The representation of women in “Deutschland 83” is problematic. First, should we consider Lenora to be the femme fatale in the narrative because she coerces Martin into continuing his mission? She is the dark-haired and chain-smoking fanatic who is willing to sacrifice her sister and nephew to save the totalitarian regime. When Martin questions her choices, she responds, “The lives of millions of East German citizens are at stake.” You might remember Liesbet van Zoonen argued “very few women are like the ‘femme fatale’ of soap operas and mini series”. She was criticising the narrow and unrealistic portrayal of women on television. However, many older viewers might actually recognise some of Lenora’s values and behaviour in the people they knew during that period. Context is everything.

In comparison to her sister, Ingrid is ideologically dissident. This is obvious in her collection of illegal books in her basement. The signifier of her blonde hair is another way the producers established the binary relationship between the two characters. However, does her sphere of action in the story reduce her to the damsel in distress because her position on the transplant list is dependent on Martin completing his mission?

Even if you disagree with this analysis of the two characters, it is clear their function in the narrative is heavily dependent on Martin’s arc.

Think about the scene in the first episode when Annett visits Ingrid to find out what happened to Martin. Two named characters talk to each other about the male protagonist. This moment is typical of shows which fail the Bechdel-Wallace test.

Ingrid talking to Annett
Screenshot from Episode one

At this point in the narrative, it seems Annett is simply the love interest. There is some complexity added when she cheats on Martin, but she does move in with Ingrid and the traditional gender roles are reaffirmed.

What about Linda and Yvonne? Are they just disposable? Are they simply written into the script to appeal to the male gaze?

Media Institutions

Television programmes are incredibly expensive and risky enterprises, especially if you want to compete in the global market. Producers can reduce the financial and legal liabilities by forming partnerships with other companies. “Deutschland 83” a co-production between RTL and UFA Fiction, but both companies are part of the RTL Group.

If you are interested, RTL Group is owned by Bertelsmann, which is one of the largest media conglomerates in the world, but has a decentralised structure consisting of different divisions operating independently of each other:

In terms of distribution and marketing, “Deutschland 83” was featured on Sundance TV in America. The programme was brought to Channel 4 in the UK through the Walter Presents brand which specialises in foreign language series with a mainstream target audience.

“Deutschland 83” DVD Cover

"Deutschland 83" DVD Cover
“Deutschland 83” DVD Cover

Essay Questions

  1. “Audiences will decode the meaning of a television programme according to their frameworks of knowledge and do not simply accept the preferred reading.” To what extent do you agree with this statement. You should refer to your Close Study Product “Deutschland 83” to support your argument.
  2. How valid is Stuart Hall’s reception theory to understanding the relationship between the producer and the audience? You should refer to your Close Study Product “Deutschland 83” to support your answer.
  3. Evaluate the usefulness of Stuart Hall’s reception theory in understanding the relationship between the producer and the audience. You should refer to your Close Study Product “Deutschland 83” to support your answer.
  4. Television programmes simply reinforce dominant values and ideologies. To what extent do you agree with this statement?
  5. Explain how media effects theories can be used to understand the ways television programmes can shape the audience’s view of the world. Use the Close Study Product “Deutschland 83” to support your answer.
  6. The cultivation theory suggests television has the power to influence the audience’s values and beliefs. To what extent does the Close Study Product “Deutschland 83” support this view?
  7. To what extent do television programmes challenge the social and cultural context in which they are produced. Refer to the Close Study Product “Deutschland 83” to support your answer.
  8. Explain how the representation of characters and setting in the Close Study Product “Deutschland 83” incorporates viewpoints and ideologies.
  9. Explore how the codes and conventions of television have been used to construct representations of national identities in the Close Study Product “Deutschland 83”.
  10. With television shows being syndicated around the world, to what extent do producers need to be aware of international audiences? Use the Close Study Product “Deutschland 83” to support your answer.
  11. How important is marketing to the television industry, especially with texts that hope to target a global audience?
  12. How important are digital platforms to the success of television programmes?

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